The slow progress of the Wilson Bill, prolonging as it did the feeling of uncertainty in the business world, had deprest all forms of industry. Thousands of men who had been thrown out of work in the summer and autumn of 1893 found themselves at the beginning of winter wholly destitute. Some of them had left their homes in the Eastern States and had gone to the Pacific Coast as railway builders. They now turned their faces homeward, intending to tramp the long distance, and to live upon the charity of the intervening towns and cities. These men were presently joined by others who were out of work, and finally by swarms of professional vagabonds and tramps. Through some curious psychological impulse, the notion of a general crusade of squalor spread all through the country; and from every quarter of the West and the Southwest, bands of ragged, hungry, homeless men appeared, fierce of aspect, and terrifying to the people of the hamlets and sparsely settled districts through which they passed. Theft, rape, and sometimes murder marked the trail of this new jacquerie, which had at first no conscious purpose, as it had no leader.
Both purpose and leader were presently provided. Three odd fanatics came to the front, and after a fashion took command of the roving bands. These threeCoxey, Kelly, and Fryestyling themselves "generals," led the largest groups, which were now known as "armies of the unemployed," and later as "Industrials" and "Commonwealers." Coxey was the most conspicuous of the three. He had a definite plan of action. He organized what he styled the "Army of the Commonweal of Christ," and with it he intended to march on Washington, to enter the Capitol and to overawe Congress into passing a law providing for the unemployed. His demand was that $500,000,000 in irredeemable paper money should be issued, and that this sum should be spent in improving the public highways throughout the country. Such became at last the declared purpose of all the Commonwealers; and so the three "armies" began their march to Washington from different pointsCoxey setting out from Massillon, Ohio, on March 25th, Frye from Los Angeles, California, early in April, and Kelly from San Francisco, on April 26th. . . .
Coxey and his followers straggled into Washington on April 28th. By that time their numbers had been reduced to about three hundred men. The mild spring weather had led most of the "army" to roam off as individuals into the pleasant country valleys, where they could bask in the sunshine and live by begging. On the first of May, however, Coxey marched his dwindling host into the grounds of the Capitol, bearing aloft some improvised banners of calico and paper muslin. But by this time public interest in the Industrials had waned. The joke had ceased to amuse. And, therefore, no particular notice was taken of Coxey until he and some of his "lieutenants" marched across the lawns, when the Capitol police at once arrested them for walking on the grass. Such was the farcical end of the Coxey crusade, which foreigners regarded as a dreadful menace to the Republic, but which terminated in a short jail sentence served for the violation of a local ordinance by the would-be Robespierre.
While, however, this pilgrimage of the Commonwealers was in itself of no importance, it did reveal a state of restlessness in the industrial world. This was soon to find expression in a tremendous struggle of organized labor against organized capitala struggle of which the outcome was at last determined by the unprecedented action of Mr. Cleveland and his Attorney-General. It involved questions, both administrative, judicial, and constitutional, of far-reaching consequence.
In 1886, the capitalists who controlled or owned the twenty-four railways which then entered the city of Chicago, had formed a voluntary association known as the General Managers' Association.2 This body had for its main purpose the effective and arbitrary control of all persons employed by the railways represented in the association. Wages were cut down according to a general agreement. Discharged workmen were "blacklisted," so that they could not easily get new employment. With no standing whatever in law, the Managers' Association was establishing a complete control of the independence and even of the livelihood of thousands of railway employees.3 To offset this combination of the owners, the men had organized, in 1893, the American Railway Union. The two bodies, antagonistic as they were in their special interests, came into conflict early in 1894, over a question which did not in its origin directly concern either of them.
The Pullman Palace Car Company was not a railway corporation, but was engaged in manufacturing cars which it operated through written contracts with the railways. It was a highly prosperous concern, and Mr. Pullman, its president, had won much commendation from philanthropic sociologists for having built the pretty little village of Pullman, near Chicago, where employees of the company could at moderate rentals find houses that were clean, well lighted, and supplied with admirable sanitary arrangements. Lakes, parks, and well-kept streets made the place appear to be a poor man's paradise. On the other hand, those who lived in Pullman saw another side. Not many residents stayed there long. While they stayed, they seemed to be under a singular constraint. If they spoke of the company, they did so in a half-whisper, and with a furtive glance behind them very much "as a Russian might mention the Czar." Every one felt that he was spied upon, and that an incautious word might lead to his discharge and get his name upon the "black list."
In May, 1894, the Pullman Company dismissed a large number of its workmen. The wages of such as were retained were lowered by some twenty per cent. Many were now employed for less than what was usually regarded as full time. A committee of employees waited upon Mr. Pullman to ask that the old wages be restored. Mr. Pullman refused this request, but promised that he would not punish any member of the committee for having presented the petition. This promise he apparently violated; for on the very next day three of the committee were discharged. Mr. Pullman, in fact, evidently regarded himself as a personage so sacrosanct as to make even a respectful petition to him a serious offense. Indignant at his action, five-sixths of his men went out on strike. Mr. Pullman promptly discharged the other sixth, who had remained faithful to his interests.
To justify the Pullman management, a general statement was given out on its behalf, that the close of the Columbian Exposition and the existing business depression had checked the demand for its cars; that it had been employing men at an actual loss; that it could not afford to continue them at work and at the old scale of wages. In reply to this, the fact was pointed out that while the wages of the men had been cut, the salaries of the officers remained as large as ever; and that rents in the town of Pullman had not been lowered. Moreover, the stock of the company was selling above par; its dividends for the preceding year on a capital of $36,000,000 had been $2,520,000, while it had a surplus of undivided profits amounting to $25,000,000.
About 4,000 Pullman employees were members of the American Railway Union. In June, a convention of the union was held in Chicago, and this body took up the question of the Pullman strike, altho the men on strike were not railway employees at all. A committee of the union wished to confer with the Pullman management, but were not allowed to do so. The Civic Federation of Chicago, with the approval and support of the mayors of fifty cities, urged the company to submit the matter to arbitration. The company answered: "We have nothing to arbitrate." Then, on June 2d, the Railway Union, finding no settlement possible, passed a resolution to the effect that unless the Pullman Company should come to an agreement with its men before June 26th, the members of the Railway Union would refuse to "handle" Pullman cars. The company remained obdurate; and therefore, on the 26th, the Union fulfilled its promise. From that day on, all the roads running out of Chicago, no train to which Pullman cars were attached could move.
The president of the Railway Union was Mr. Eugene V. Debs.4 He had formerly been a locomotive engineer and afterward a grocer. Going into politics, he had served a term in the Indiana Legislature. He was a very shrewd, long-headed strategist. He understood the strength of his organization. He was equally well aware of the one weak point in all the great labor demonstrations of the past. The 150,000 men whom he controlled could, by acting together, completely paralyze the railway system centering at Chicago. Local public sentiment was, on the whole, favorable to the Pullman employees. That sentiment would, however, be alienated if violence and general disorder were to follow on the strike. It was vital that the Railway Union should employ no lawless means. . . .
The peaceable strike which was begun upon the 26th proved at once to be remarkably effective. Switchmen refused to attach Pulman cars to any train. When they were discharged for this, the rest of the train's crew left it in a body. By the end of the fifth day after the strike began, all the roads running out of Chicago were practically at a standstill. The Railway Managers' Association was facing absolute defeat. Its resources in the way of men were exhausted, and its trains could not be operated. Yet all this had been accomplished by peaceable means. There was no sign of violence or disorder. But the men who made up the Managers' Association were very able. They had at their command unlimited money, and legal advisers who could conceive daring plans. . . .
On July 1st, the roads were still paralyzed. Disorder had still for the most part been sporadic. There was no evidence that the local authorities were not fully competent to deal with the situation so far as the unruly elements were concerned. On the following day, however, on motion of the United States District-Attorney, Judge Woods issued a sweeping injunction forbidding the president of the Railway Union, Mr. Debs, and also its vice-president, secretary, and others, from interfering with the transportation of the mails and from obstructing interstate commerce. Mr. Walker also sent word to Washington that in his judgment, United States troops would be needed to enforce the order of the court. On that very day, President Cleveland ordered General Miles to Chicago, to assume personal command of the troops at Fort Sheridan. Mr. Walker seemed strangely insistent in his demand for troops and for their immediate use.
That same afternoon President Cleveland ordered Colonel Crofton, in command at Fort Sheridan, to enter Chicago with the entire garrison of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. This order was promptly carried out; and on the following morning the troops were in camp upon the lake front. Reenforcements were hurried to them, and General Miles had presently at his disposal a force of several thousand men. A brigade of State militia was also ordered to the city by the Governor at the Mayor's request.
The story of the next few days is one of perpetual disorder, controlled, howecer, or greatly lessened by the admirable work of the regular troops, whose cool firmness had that indescribable effect which discipline always exercises upon disorder. Yet there was much destruction of railway property, both within the city and near it; while the temper of the soldiers was often severely tried. The spirit of the mob grew more and more dangerous; and at last (on July 7th) General Miles issued an order to all officers in command of troops, directing them to fire upon persons engaged in overt hostile acts. Mr. Debs, whose prudence had began to fail him, made an inflammatory address, in which he said:
"The first shot fired by regular troops at the mobs here will be a signal for civil war. Bloodshed will surely follow."
Events moved quickly. On the following day the President issued a proclamation ordering all persons engaged in unlawful assemblages to disperse "on or before twelve o'clock noon of the ninth day of July instant." Those who disregarded the warning were to be viewed as public enemies. "There will be no vacillation in the decisive punishment of the guilty." On that same day, a mob at Hammond, Indiana, some twenty miles distant from Chicago, set upon several non-strikers, killing one and wounding four. Matters grew still more serious; and a detachment of regular troops, commanded by Major Hartz, was hurried to the Monon station. Under their protection, several trains were moved. This infuriated the mob, which, after exhausting every form of insult, began to shower the soldiers with missiles. The troops remained unmoved, awaiting orders. Emboldened by this apparent timidity, their assailants, who now numbered fully three thousand, made a wild rush, intending to overwhelm the compact company in blue. Major Hartz gave a sharp command, and the magazine rifles spurted fire into the yelling mob, drilling it through and through with bullets and strewing the ground with dead.
Coincidently with these events, Judge Grosscup delivered a charge to a special Federal Grand Jury, which at once found indictments against Debs and three of his associates, the charge being one of conspiracy under the Sherman Anti-Trust Law of 1890. On July 10th, the four men were arrested and gave bail in $10,000 each. On July 17th, the same men were brought before Judge Woods and were charged with contempt of court, in having disobeyed the injunction of July 2d. They refused to give bail upon this charge, and were sent to prison under guard.
This swift and stern action of the Federal Government broke the backbone of the strike, as Mr. Debs himself afterward admitted. The movement in which the Knights of Labor had also taken part, had spread over twenty-seven States and Territories and had affected the operation of 125,000 miles of railway. But everywhere it was dealt with in the same energetic manner whenever it obstructed the service of the mails; and after the arrest of Mr. Debs it died speedily away. On July 20thless than a month after the general strike beganthe United States troops left Chicago, their presence being no longer needed.
In the opinion of the Governor of Illinois, Mr. John P. Altgeld, their presence there had never been required. Mr. Altgeld was a Democrat of the Populistic type. In appearance, he resembled a typical German agitatorfanatical and intense. He had pardoned the Anarchists who were sentenced to imprisonment at the time of the Haymarket murders in 1886. Many persons regarded him as no better than an Anarchist himself, yet this judgment was too harsh. His sympathies were undoubtedly with the strikers, and he felt, with some reason, that the presence of Federal troops was essentially provocative. . . .
The serious constitutional question which the strike of 1894 brought into prominence concerned the judiciary rather than the executive. "Government by injunction" was a phrase that now came into general use. The Interstate Commerce Law of 1887 and the Sherman Anti-Trust Law of 1890 had both been framed with a view to checking the power of the corporations. Clever lawyers, however, had most ingeniously converted these two acts into instruments to protect the railway corporations against attack. if an engineer left his post, or if the crew of a train deserted it, this was held to be a conspiracy in restraint of commerce. A United States Circuit Court had issued a "blanket" injunction against all the employees of the Northern Pacific Road, forbidding them to strike. As to Mr. Debs and his associates, they had been enjoined from inciting men to strike. On December 14th they were brought before Judge Woods in Chicago, and sentencedDebs to six months' imprisonment and the others to three monthsfor contempt of court. This extension of the enjoining power was contrary to the whole spirit and practise of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence as hitherto understood. By the new procedure, a Judge defined in advance the nature of an offense, and by injunction forbade the commission of it by certain specified persons. If they disobeyed the injunction, they were brought before the judge and fined or imprisoned, not directly for the act itself, but for contempt of court. In this way the judge became also the accuser, and the accused lost the right of a jury trial. Many of the most conservative publicists in the East were alarmed by this alarming stretch of the judicial power....
The action of Judge Woods in sentencing Debs was, however, sustained by a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court handed down on May 27, 1895, and he served his term in prison. Yet it is to be noted that the indictments for conspiracy found against him in legal form by a Federal Grand Jury were afterward dismissed.
The report of a commission appointed by President Cleveland to investigate the origin of the great strike was full of deep significance. This commission found in the Railway Managers' Association an example of "the persistent and shrewdly devised plans of corporations to overreach their limitations and to usurp indirectly powers and rights not contemplated in their charters." It found that neither the Railway Union, nor any general combination of railway employees had been planned until the railway managers had set the example.
1 From Peck's "Twenty Years of the Republic," By permission of the publishers, Dodd, Mead & Company. Copyright, 1906.
2 It represented also some eighteen other railway corporations.
3 The number of men directly and indirectly employed was estimated in 1894 at more than 200,000.
4 Mr. Debs was born in Indiana in 1865. He was the candidate of the Social Democratic party for President in 1900, and ran for the same office in 1904 and 1908 as the candidate of the Socialist party. His popular vote in 1904 was 402,283. This being the year in which Alton B. Parker was the Democratic candidate, many radical Democrats voted for Debs.